Saturday, May 3, 2014

When Bad is Good

Recently, I've been supporting learners in writing submissions to an online magazine.  This has helped me work on improving a weakness: teaching writing.  Just like my learners, I tend to avoid the stuff that isn't easy (note that this is the first post I've tagged with "writing" since starting this blog!!).  But I advise my learners to focus on their weak points, so I need to swallow a bit of my own medicine!

Here's my latest insight ... forgive me if it's obvious, I can be pretty slow sometimes: while writing assignments are important, a large part of teaching writing can come from examining existing texts critically.

Another text for a "garbage" lesson?
As I guess most teachers do, I select some text (could be audio) as a focal point for many lessons.  It could be from a textbook, but actually, most of them are from someplace else.  Since our classes are focused on civics topics, I like to look at current news, local web sites, etc. A couple of weeks ago, for example, I decided to use some writing about Earth Day as the starting point for a high intermediate to low advanced lesson. The topic was "garbage", which posed many interesting points for discussion.

The text, however, was one giant paragraph, or -- more accurately -- no paragraphs. The sentences were not complex and the flow of the writing was a bit jumpy. I would normally have kept looking for something more well-written, or rewritten this one, but class time was looming!  Out of desperation (not wisdom!), I decided to let the learners critically evaluate the writing themselves.

After we read the text and related to the content in various ways, I invited learners to decide if the text could be divided into paragraphs and, if so, where they would make the divisions and why. Small groups compared their thoughts and this produced quite a bit of animated discussion.  All of the groups concluded that four paragraphs were appropriate and, after a bit of negotiation, most agreed on where the first two divisions belonged.  The last division hinged on how one sentence was interpreted.  Was it referring to the previous argument, or supporting the conclusion?  It was not clear and we concluded as a class that the sentence could be rewritten to more clearly fit one or the other. Although nobody wrote anything, learners were actively thinking about the nature of paragraphs and what makes a good one. The activity was communicative because they were using English to negotiate the division points. Looking back, I realize that I could also have asked individuals to try their hand at rewriting the faulty sentence.

I tried another activity as well, suggesting that linking language might be used to improve the flow. Although this group can generate a fine list of examples of linking language, they struggled with putting it into use in this case.  While it seems as if the activity "failed", I walked away with an idea for future non-writing writing practice.We could examine good examples of linking language in future texts and maybe then return to this one for practice.

In another case, the class listened to (and later read) an opinion that was submitted to a public radio station on the topic of nutrition for children. I like to use this kind of material because it's written by ordinary people from different walks of life, so the writing (and the speaking in the recording) has not passed through a journalism filter. The author was clearly well-educated and had obviously spent some time putting together a thoughtful text. But it didn't go over well with the class. They thought the text was "too hard".  We had just reviewed some tips for good writing in preparation for their writing assignment (see first sentence), so I asked learners to discuss the text in terms of those tips. They came up with these two ideas: he did not use language that was appropriate for his intended audience. He wrote in an academic style, but he might have wanted to write more for a general audience. Learners also felt that he didn't bring out his main point early enough. Once again, I was halfway to a great activity -- I didn't offer them the chance to rewrite with more appropriate language or suggest how he might have introduced his thesis sooner.

The topic was Pennsylvania.

A final example: with my other group (low intermediates, mostly), I brought in a reading from a textbook because it offered some great recycling of recent language. I had modified the original a bit to model some language patterns we had been using. We read, discussed, and analyzed and then I decided to play the audio from the CD that accompanied the textbook. Suddenly, I remembered that I had modified the text, so therefore the audio would not match!  Without breaking stride, I just asked the learners to listen carefully and notice any differences.They listened hard and very alertly pointed out even the tiniest discrepancy.  I was originally going to highlight pronunciation, but I think this engaged them far more. And it was a great way to introduce alternatives to the word patterns we had been working on. Once more, I had stumbled into a useful exercise that I will probably set up more deliberately in the future!

Some conclusions:

- I should think twice about skipping or rewriting "bad" texts. Learners can sharpen writing skills by analyzing them.
- If a text is found to be less than perfect, present learners with the opportunity to rewrite.
- The above activities can be used with learner texts -- mine too.  (Of course!)
- I shouldn't forget to look with positive eyes, too.  Examples of well-chosen language, etc.

Next post (in progress!) will be related to emotions and teaching.  Sometimes I walk out of class feeling almost drunk with pleasure.  Sometimes I walk out mentally whipping myself.  Are these valid indicators of how a lesson went?  What do you think?

 Note: I have not given links to the resources discussed here because of the critical comments about them!

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